2003 Visitor Studies Association Presentation (Columbus, OHIO) with Gretchen Overhiser
Not everyone has the budget or time to hire consultants to do evaluation. In addition, most institutions have talented people on staff who know visitors, have experience with evaluation from unexpected places and might even know how to do data analysis. Why not do the evaluation yourself?
In this light-hearted session, we discourage you from torturing yourself with studies that are unnecessarily complicated and may yield more information than you even need. Instead, we invite you to be creative and to use simple ways to get information from your visitors. We will not provide a step-by-step tutorial on how to conduct visitor studies. We do not believe that one process works for everyone. Instead, this session will investigate a number of topics including assembling teams that involve evaluators, tackling bias, conducting fun visitor studies and interpreting results.
Evaluators have had mixed success serving on project teams. Some institutions believe their role is essential for moving the project vision forward. At others, evaluators only supply teams with data without helping to implement meaningful changes. On scientific teams in research laboratories, research scientists not only disseminate data but also provide essential vision for project teams. Museum evaluators can serve a similar role in providing essential data but also helping to shape project development in order to deliver a finished product that meets the goals of the institution in addition to those of visitors.
Evaluator bias is another obstacle to manage for in-house evaluation. Some people can easily shift from evaluator to exhibit developer to project manager to program coordinator while maintaining a clear focus on their role. Others are most effective promoting the work of the evaluators, funneling appropriate tasks to evaluators or facilitating meaningful discussions about the data. We feel that it is important to recognize your unique evaluation skill-set to promote every aspect of the visitor agenda.
Drawing from existing literature and our creativity, we have used some evaluation techniques other than interviews, questionnaires or tracking. We have found that the visitor studies techniques that we get the most excited about are usually the ones that get the most enthusiastic response from our visitors. For example, "Photo Sorts" give visually-minded visitors reference points for their opinions. "Word Association" elicits qualitative data from visitors, but also allows for simple comparison across a large data set. "Directed Label Testing" asks visitors to zero in on problematic areas of draft labels.
We encourage you to try out "quick and dirty" visitor studies to get an initial impression of what visitors may be thinking. Within a few interviews, you may begin to see trends in your data. At that point, your institution can decide if the in-house evaluator has the time, expertise and appropriate budget to conduct a more rigorous study.
With expertise coming from diverse backgrounds (everything from library science to anthropology to marketing) and a willingness to work with others to tackle bias, in-house evaluators have the capability to execute visitor studies that will provide useful, valid and high-quality data.